I'm a Rare Breed: An Elite Chess Player Who’s Open About His Faith
Image: Richard Fleischman

On the small planet where elite chess players dwell, very few people worship Jesus Christ. If anyone discovers that you’re one of those “superstitious,” “narrow-minded idiots,” you’re likely to see nasty comments accumulate on your Facebook fan page. On a regular basis, I receive emails from strangers lecturing me about the dangers of following Jesus. Out of pity or disgust, they wonder how I, the world’s second-ranked chess player, can be so “weak-minded.”

I have been assured that identifying openly as a Christian will interfere with sponsorship, support, and invitations to events. I have been told that spending time reading my Bible, praying, and going to church will inevitably weaken my performance. People plead with me to at least keep quiet. They say thanking God publicly makes me look ridiculous.

So why did I make such a risky move?

Playing it Safe

The Philippines, where I grew up, is a country of God-seekers. People mention God all the time, in just about every context. Everyone believes he exists, even if they’re unwilling to claim much more than that.

As a child, I was informed that you needed to be a good person so that God would give you certain blessings, like food and jobs—which are very important in such a poor country. But this confused me, because it seemed like the bad people received more than the good people. I knew of many famous crooks who went to church, wore religious symbols, and got tattoos of Jesus or a crucifix—and they were pretty rich.

Clearly, many popular beliefs and practices were less a matter of worshiping God than of appeasing the god of luck. One legend had it that if you rubbed a particular part of a particular statue, you would be blessed. If you committed a heinous crime, you could make a large donation to some saint or crawl on your knees to the altar, begging for forgiveness.

As a child, I decided to play it safe; I would recite the right words, and I would make the sign of the cross at the right time. But I never felt connected to God in any meaningful way. In fact, I was mostly afraid he would send me to hell. Deep down, the whole thing made no sense.

My New Family

I have played chess since age six or seven. At first, it was just a fun game I could win. As I grew up, I kept on winning. But the Philippines offers little support for chess players. (On the whole, the people prefer basketball.) There are many excellent chess players in the Philippines, but chess is regarded as a poor man’s game. Powerful, wealthy people who could help chess players advance in society just ignore them.

Despite these disadvantages, I kept on playing, representing my country in regional tournaments and trying to make some money here and there. But to become an elite chess player, you need to invest in your development, and I could never afford to hire a coach or secure serious training. I used to study from newspaper clippings because my family could not afford real books.

At around age 16, I sank into depression. Even though I recognized my special talent for playing chess, there seemed to be no point in developing it. Whether I worked hard or not, no one would care. It felt like there was no realistic hope of pursuing a career as a chess professional. Out of frustration, I stopped studying, and my player rating began to slide.

One day, I got the sudden urge to leave. I was 18 years old, and I had lived on my own for two years. At that point, I had received an offer to play on the chess team of a small American university, and I decided I should take the offer and, at the very least, get a degree to prepare me for the future.

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I'm a Rare Breed: An Elite Chess Player Who’s Open ...